(Reading habits of a Writer: genre and non-genre favourites.)
What do The Hitchhiker’s Guide and Pilgrim’s Progress have in common?
Not only the plot device of the innocent abroad. John Bunyan was inspired to write Pilgrim’s Progress after reading The Plain Man’s Pathway To Heaven – written by Arthur Dent.
Hitchhiker’s Guide is one of my genre favourites, in all its early forms: the original BBC Radio 4 programme, the equally original BBC TV adaptation, and Douglas Adams’ unequalled “Trilogy of Five Novels.” But not the Hollywood movie. I didn’t like that at all.
Within the genre, some other favourites are:
Alfred Bester: but only his novels and stories from the fifties.
Ursula LeGuin: almost anything.
Jack Vance: the Demon Princes novels especially (most of his others too, but sometimes he goes on autopilot).
Iain M Banks: almost anything.
China Mieville: Perdido Street Station especially, but most of his other stuff.
Brian Aldiss: Hothouse and the Helliconia trilogy especially, but most of his other stuff.
William Gibson: especially Neuromancer, also The Difference Engine and the Bridge trilogy.
Fritz Leiber: most of his stuff.
Frederik Pohl: The Heechee trilogy, and (with Cyril Kornbluth) The Space Merchants.
R A Lafferty: especially Past Master.
Arkady and Boris Strugatsky: almost anything.
Stanislav Lem: known mainly for Solaris, but his output covered a huge range. For example, Imaginary Magnitude and A Perfect Vacuum (reviews of, and forewords to, nonexistent future books), the Pirx the Pilot and Ijon Tichy stories (surreal but perfectly logical political satires), and The Invincible (page-turning hard SF).
Non-genre favourites include:
Giant nineteenth-century novels, especially those from England, Russia and France. Crime and Punishment , in particular. It works equally well as a great piece of literature (about Life, The Universe And Everything), and as a whodunnit. Except that the person who dunnit is known at the outset and has a cat-and-mouse game with the equally clever examining magistrate, wanting both escape and capture.
Jane Austen: How did she do it? No sex or violence, mostly just people having tea, but totally unputdownable.
Metaphysical poets: neutron-star language: ultimate concentration and economy.
World War 1 poets, especially Wilfred Owen.
James Joyce, especially Portrait of the Artist and Ulysses.
Doctor Johnson, or more precisely Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson. Johnson was a great bear of a man, a pompous High Tory and High Church figure with opinions on everything – always original and sometimes unexpected, like his opposition to slavery. And he liked cats.
Herman Melville: Moby Dick of course, but also Billy Budd and Bartleby The Scrivener.
Richmal Crompton’s William books: children’s books mostly set in the nineteen-thirties and forties. Great children’s books, because Richmal Crompton used unashamedly literary words whose meaning you could figure out by their context. A good way to learn and remember words. Her style was dry and ironic, with absolutely no talking down.
Shakespeare, for all the obvious reasons, and also some of his contemporaries: Ben Jonson, Christopher Marlowe.
Chaucer, for his characterisation.
Cormac McCarthy: everything of his that I’ve read so far.
Flann O’Brien: The Third Policeman (like Gormenghast, it defies genres).
Any books which manage to be both literary works and page-turners: too many for an exhaustive list, but titles like David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, William Boyd’s Brazzaville Beach, Thomas Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities, Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day. The book I’m currently reading is that kind of book: The Shadow of the Wind, by Carlos Ruiz Zafon. I’m alternating it with The Windup Girl. I like alternating reads: each one seems to gain by the contrast.